Plural problems

« previous post | next post »

Reader SN writes:

One of my students has just received extensive comments on a MS. Some were extremely helpful, others less so. Two in the latter category were:

The plural of behaviour is not necessary.

The term ‘variation’ subsumes the plural. Eliminate the ‘s’ here and throughout.

“Behaviours” troubled me the first few times I came across it, but  I am now happy that there is a difference between saying an animal shows a range of behaviour and saying it has a range of behaviours. I had never come across this attitude to variation though. Do you think Elgar was aware of his solecism when he named his "Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra ("Enigma”)",?

Without seeing the original contexts of use, it's hard to tell how far out of line the editorial comments were. But whether or not "the plural of behaviour is necessary", it's certainly hallowed by centuries of usage. Having glossed the singular of behaviour as "Manner of conducting oneself in the external relations of life; demeanour, deportment, bearing, manners", the OED takes the trouble to note that it occurs "Also in pl.", with these citations:

a1563 J. Bale Brefe Comedy Iohan Baptystes in Harleian Misc. (1744) I. 109   Your fastynges, longe prayers, with other holy behauers.
a1616 Shakespeare Julius Caesar (1623) i. ii. 44   Which giue some soyle (perhaps) to my Behauiours.
1678 R. Cudworth tr. Plautus in True Intellect. Syst. Universe i. iv. 366   To observe the Actions, Manners and Behaviours of men.
a1763 ‘G. Psalmanazar’ Mem. (1764) 186,   I could see..thro' all his artifices and different behaviours.
1959 Cambr. Rev. 7 Mar. 405/1   We must surely accept that the pattern of associated behaviours first noticed by Weber was one of the most brilliantly successful suggestions in the whole history of intellectual endeavour.

This usage remains common in scientific writing:

Communication behaviours in a hospital setting: an observational study [BMJ 1998]
Sexual behaviour in Britain: partnerships, practices, and HIV risk behaviours [The Lancet 2001]
Regulation of parkinsonian motor behaviours by optogenetic control of basal ganglia circuitry [Nature 2010]
Illuminating the Neural Circuitry of Compulsive Behaviors [Science 2013]

The count-noun version of behavio(u)r also occurs in the singular:

The act of writing is a familiar example of a behavior that is continuously self-regulated through evaluative self-reactions. [American Psychologist 1978]
The alternative, inclusive fitness models 10 –12 , achieves simplicity and clarity by attributing all fitness effects of a behaviour to an expanded fitness of the actor. [Nature 1985]
However, the basking shark spends long periods feeding at the waters' surface, a behaviour that allows study of this shark by tracking, observation of active feeding, and sampling of zooplankton prey. [Nature 1998]
Whereas the high-energy dispersion varies with doping, the dispersion converges within about 50 meV of the Fermi energy, revealing a behaviour that is independent of doping. [Nature 2003]
A whale whacks the water surface with its tail, a behavior that may increase the effectiveness of feeding on schools of small fish. [Science 2013]

The same pattern applies in the case of variations, even outside the musical "theme and variations" usage, which has been around at least since the 18th century.  John Donne used the plural in a non-musical context in 1631:

Though thy heart have some variations, some deviations, some aberrations from that direct point, upon which it should be bent.

The calculus of variations has been around since the early 18th century; and various uses of count-noun varieties of variation continue to be widespread in scientific writing to this day:

Variations in the Earth's Orbit: Pacemaker of the Ice Ages [Science 1976]
Copy number variations and clinical cytogenetic diagnosis of constitutional disorders [Nature Genetics 2007]
Large Variations in Southern Hemisphere Biomass Burning During the Last 650 Years [Science 2010]
Prediction of seasonal climate-induced variations in global food production [Nature Climate Change 2013]

Pulsar Test of a Variation of the Speed of Light with Frequency [Science 1969]
Site-specific DNA binding using a variation of the double stranded RNA binding motif [Nature Structural Biology 1998]
… a negative value represents a variation that is opposite in phase, i.e., peaking in summer rather than winter [Science 2004]

Type-shifting between mass noun and count noun is commonplace in English, and indeed this process is regular enough that it applies instantly to many newly-coined words: No sooner is there email than we have "an email" and "37 separate emails".

Is this kind of  category-shifting strictly necessary? Well, you could always say "piece of email" or "pieces of email" instead, just as you could say "type(s) of wine" instead of "wines".  But why forbid a useful, generally-accepted morphological process? And especially, why intervene in specific cases where elite writers from Shakespeare and Donne to the present day are thereby put in the wrong?

Perhaps there is some misguided guidance on this topic in someone's usage guide. Or perhaps the guilty copy-editor or referee just formed this idiosyncratic non-rule by mis-applying some long-ago lesson about mass and count nouns. The details would give us another case study in the psychopathology of peeving…


  1. Carl said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 8:08 am

    I saw someone peeving about behavior vs. behaviors for the first time the other day:

    This is another area involving such a basic aspect of English that it’s hard to see how any native speaker of English could fail to grasp it; yet apparently we do. This area is mass nouns. These are nouns that don’t have plural forms (at least in their ordinary sense), but refer to things that are measured rather than counted – nouns like milk, compassion, importance. We don’t normally speak of “a behavior” or “a luggage,” or “a wealth.”

    However, it is now accepted practice to refer to “behaviors.” Academics love that usage. It sounds so abstruse and elevated, and thus it sets the academics above the common non-academic herd. (“Normal,” non-academic people, ironically, tend to use “behavior” properly, as a mass noun; they say good or bad “behavior,” not “a behavior” or “behaviors.”)

    It strikes me as ridiculous.

    The article also complains about adjectives that become nouns, and I'm sure much more, but it was too silly for me to read all of it.

    [(myl) There are certainly mass nouns (like luggage) that resist countification more than others. But you'd think that a few seconds of historical research would go into the choice of examples for an essay whose theme is "The stupidest generation":

    One alarming indication of our increasing stupidity is our stupider use of our native tongue. In our command of our language – always a key gauge of intelligence – we are regressing.

    English has indeed changed over the past few centuries, though it's irrational to believe that this is proof of intellectual regress. But it's fittingly stupid to feature as evidence of increasing stupidity a usage that can be found in Shakespeare.]

  2. Vance Maverick said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 8:32 am

    I like how the peever Carl quotes inserts the caveat "at least in their ordinary sense", apparently without realizing that it destroys the argument. Hmm, maybe one might write of enumerable behaviors and discrete variations when that wasn't quite captured by the ordinary sense of the nouns!

  3. Daniel said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 9:24 am

    Even if "behavior" as a count noun can be traced back a long way, it certainly seems to have been increasing in frequency over the past few decades. It isn't entirely surprising that somebody who completed formal education before c.1960 would regard it as a novelty.

    [(myl) On the other hand…]

  4. mollymooly said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    Give mass-noun X, it is productive to zero-derive a count noun X' meaning (a) "type of X", or (b) "instance of X". It's not always clear which of (a) or (b) is intended, though often the difference is moot.

    [(myl) In some cases, the results are more or less a joke, e.g. "a shrubbery". I haven't seen a good analysis of what separates the joke neologisms from the unremarkable neologisms — or the related question of which count-to-mass derivations are in common usage and which are not.]

  5. KathrynM said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

    Carl–fair's fair. Give Mr. Eubank credit for being the best possible example of his own thesis:
    "I have observed us for a long time, and in my considered judgment, we say stupider things, in stupider English. We watch stupider movies and TV shows, and listen to stupider music. We elect stupider politicians, for stupider reasons, by stupider methods. We wear stupider clothes, fight stupider wars, and idolize stupider heroes. We have stupider laws and far, far stupider bureaucrats. Every day, in every way, we are getting stupider and stupider."

  6. Jake Nelson said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    Personally, I've always perceived words as roots + affixes, and grammatical rules against using certain pieces with others (when the combination makes logical sense) offend me. (Obviously, I dislike inflection.)

    Generally speaking, I interpret most rules against doing a reasonable thing like this (or splitting the infinitive, or any number of other things) as indicating that the speaker uses the language only by rote, using stock phrases, with no understanding of the meaning of any of the parts, much like a parrot or an AI chatbot. A little harsh, I know, and I try not to be so severe, but that's my instinctive reaction.

  7. Sili said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

    it’s hard to see how any native speaker of English could fail to grasp it

    Then perhaps they don't.

    Is it fair to ascribe this to Dunning-Kruger, or is it just oldfashioned authoritarianism?

  8. Ted McClure said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

    Reference myl's response to mollymooly: At least in the case of "a shrubbery" the joke is that the mass noun appears to have been created from the simpler count noun "shrub", although I have no idea which came first. "A shrubbery" is an uneccessary and complex back-formation. It's like those of us who think that "orientate" is funny, because "orient" is a perfectly fine English verb that appears to form the root of "orientation". Distinguish "populate" and "population", where there is no English root *popul. That I know of. However, some of these mutations give us new words that start to diverge in meaning from the original root. I'm seeing "orient" used in the context of pointing oneself in the right direction, while "orientate" is coming to mean the process of aligning a map with the terrain it represents. They just seem funny to those of us caught in the process of change.

  9. Eric P Smith said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    @myl: what have you in mind when you say that "a shrubbery" is more or less a joke? Here in the UK, a shrubbery is an area of garden planted with shrubs, and that has been standard usage for as long as I can remember (over half a century). Or do I misunderstand you?

    [(myl) That usage was unknown to me — my only associate with "a shrubbery" (i.e. the mass noun used as a singular count noun with an indefinite article) is the Monty Python skit. I always assumed that part of the joke was the unfamiliar and awkward countification, like asking for "a clothing" or "a schoolwork". Are you saying that for British viewers, "a shrubbery" is just a strange ransom demand, like asking for a flowerbed? ]

  10. Jeff DeMarco said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

    In a "theme and variations" there are separate and distinct musical treatments of the theme, each one is a separate "variation." To me, this requires an "s" to distinguish it from the general concept of thematic variation.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

    Perhaps myl shared my own apparent misimpression that "a shrubbery" as used by Monty Python was a comical invention rather than a perfectly standard BrEng usage being used in a comical context? (Something like the sense referenced by Eric P Smith does seem to have been used by Thoreau, who was neither British nor comical. But that was a long time ago.)

    [(myl) Indeed, a simple search of the OED turns up these citations:

    1791   T. Newte Prospects & Observ. Tour 139   A beautiful shrubbery of birch, oak, and alders.
    1841   B. Hall Patchwork I. x. 158   The house and terrace were sheltered by a thick shrubbery.
    1877   W. Black Green Pastures I. ii. 25   She passed through some dense shrubberies..until she came to an open space at the edge of a wood.

    Amazing. Glad I learned a new word today.]

  12. Xmun said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

    The usual joke about a shrubbery is not the word-formation itself but what goes on inside it, or (by way of variation) behind the bike sheds.

    As I recall from my far-distant schooldays. . . .

  13. EndlessWaves said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

    Shrubbery is perfectly normal, akin to rockery, in the UK.

    'shrubber' isn't in common use and is amusing for the sound of the word, although it may be in use in the horticultural trade or victorian era.

    I guess the humour is partly asking for woody plants in a forest and partly a figure in animal skins asking for something found in planned gardens, familiar from country houses and similar.

  14. hector said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

    I'm glad Eric P Smith commented. I couldn't figure out what myl was on about with "shrubbery." Any gardener who's read English gardening books (which are legion) knows what a "shrubbery" is.

    As to "variation," logically there has to be a plural. If you're observing something that has regularity to it, and you notice an occasional anomaly to the regularity, and you also notice a markedly different kind of anomaly to the regularity, then you have two distinct variations.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

    I feel like some British commenters are not getting the "shrubbery" is a perfectly ordinary noun for us Americans. It's only when you make it a count noun, "a shrubbery", that it's unfamiliar.

  16. KCIvey said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

    Doesn't the knight hold up "a shrubbery" as he says it? The "area of a garden" sense doesn't seem to fit.

  17. Amir said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

    @ Ellen — no, we (i.e. those in the UK) understand that "shrubbery" is a perfectly ordinary noun in America (as it also is in the UK). What we're saying is that "a shrubbery" is perfectly normal for us as well.

  18. AntC said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 6:38 pm

    [Br Eng speaker], corroborating Xmun and others.
    There is a vaguely public-schoolboy [*] smirkiness to "a shrubbery", but not because of its countiness. I'd expect it to be the sort of word that turns up in P.G.Wodehouse along with "zones and messuages", "topiary", "statuary", indeed "rockery". There wasn't space for any of them in the suburban semi that I grew up in.
    [*] Br Eng public school = private/upper-class school in any other (sensible) variety. And of course most of the Monty Python team were from that background, or thought they were by the time they'd gone through Cambridge.

  19. Eric P Smith said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 6:39 pm


    Are you saying that for British viewers, "a shrubbery" is just a strange ransom demand, like asking for a flowerbed?

    Yes, exactly.

    I've viewed the clip twice and I can't say I've noticed anyone holding up a plant. Definitely an “area of garden”: Roger the shrubber twice talks of “designing” shrubberies, and the Head Knight says, “It is a good shrubbery: I like the laurels particularly.”

  20. Eric P Smith said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 6:46 pm

    And I've just experienced semantic satiation with the word 'shrubbery': that hasn't happened to me with any word for years and years.

  21. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

    I think the thing which you misguided Americans remember the Knights of Ni holding up is in fact a herring (somewhat later on.) A striking image, it's true.

    Countable shrubberies are indeed perfectly normal over here.

  22. tuncay said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 7:45 pm

    I would like to (albeit not completely) object to criticizing the copy-editor. I agree that both count-noun and mass-noun usages of behavior and variation are valid. However, I'd like to posit that they take on different meanings depending on the usage. It's impossible to criticize the copy-editor without seeing the actual sentences.

    Take "variation". When used as a mass-noun, I believe it is used in general to refer to the concept of "varying", whereas the count-noun refers to one or more instances of "varying". This explains the heavily scientific usage of the latter.

    I think this is beautifully illustrated as well by a noun with a similar meaning: "change".

    The NFL has made a lot of changes to the rules this year.
    The new rules have brought a lot of change to the league.

    These nouns are not interchangeable, and the meaning difference between the mass and count-noun is reflective of "variation" as well.

    Behavior, I believe, is a similar beast. The mass-noun is a more generic form of "how one behaves", whereas the count-noun is referring to specific instances or categories of behavior. Again, all of your contemporary examples of the latter are from scientific journals.

    p.s. : I can't be the only one who cringed at "a MS" in the letter. Or could I?

  23. Ellen K. said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 9:45 pm

    Tuncay, I read "a MS" as "a manuscript". So no cringing.

  24. Brett said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

    I always knew that "a shrubbery" was a standard British usage, although the Pythons still seemed to be poking some fun at the oddity of its formation. I assume, after all, that "shrubber" is not a valid word in any English dialect.

  25. bratschegirl said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 1:07 am

    Only a nimrod would call "variations" incorrect.

  26. Gordon Campbell said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 1:31 am

    You were looking for insights into the psychopathology of peeving. Or maybe you weren’t. But in any case, here’s my countability peeve. (Hardly a peeve at all, really–more of a beloved pet peevelet. Don’t jump on me.)

    There’s a style of academic English that revels in pluralizing the hitherto unpluralizable. There are the different ‘knowings’ of indigenous people, and recently I read that there is not just ‘acting’ but multiple ‘actings’ (i.e. theories/methods of), and then there are the multiple ‘Englishes’ of sociolinguistics. And not really wanting to lump all these into the same category, but ummm doing it anyway…I sometimes feel that this style is a way of saying, ‘my point is so profound that standard usage is just not up to the job’.

    I don’t think these formations are wrong and I don’t have any problem with people playing with their language in any way they like, it just often seems to be a needlessly awkward way of putting things.

    [(myl) And then you have those mathematicians with their algebras and logics and geometries, as if one of each wasn't good enough for them.]

  27. Layra said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 3:06 am

    Is there a word to use for a thing that you get by taking one thing and changing it slightly, especially in those cases where you don't want to specify a type for the initial thing, that isn't either a countified mass-noun, or a word with both a count- and mass-noun reading?

  28. David Morris said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 5:55 am

    Sooner or later in an ESL classroom discussion about hobbies, approximately the following occurs: 'My favourite hobby is reading book … watching movie … playing video game … listening music'. First correction: 'reading books … watching movies … playing video games' but inevitably one student is way ahead of me and offers 'listening musics'.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 9:31 am

    Count me as one of the masses who are grateful for the enlightenment on "shrubberies".

    By the way, British "rockery" is usually "rock garden" in American English, and British "alpine" (plant) is usually "rock-garden plant". (The hyphen is largely wishful thinking on my part.) However, British writing on gardens is known to enough Americans interested in the subject that I wouldn't be surprised to encounter the British terms here.

  30. Haamu said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 10:17 am

    @Layra: Try "variant."

  31. tuncay said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 10:34 am

    @Ellen K., thanks! I wasn't sure what it stood for.

  32. Jussi Piitulainen said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

    Re algebras, logics, and geometries: ontologies. Ontology used to be the study of being by philosophers. Then appeared the concrete listings of things and relations between them, in computers, and they were called ontologies. (This may be just the order in which I became aware of the two meanings of the word. The latter is still an irritation to me. :)

  33. AntC said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

    @David Morris, but it's neither *listening music, nor *listening musics.
    It's listening to music.
    That said, it can't be far into an ESL class that you have to 'come clean' that there's precious little consistency in English.
    Likewise you'd get to "… playing football, playing basketball, shooting hoops". Then you're straight into count vs mass nouns. Aargh!

  34. Ken Brown said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 5:57 pm

    An "alpine" is not "a rock-garden plant", though many (most?) rock-garden plants might be alpines. Not for botanists anyway. They are plants of high mountains. Also often found at sea-level in high latitudes. So we can talk about relict arctic-alpine species found in Britain, for example.

  35. Chris Waters said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

    I'm surprised we got this far without a single mention of the Goldberg Variations. Although, to be fair, that's certainly not what Bach called them, given that English was not his native tongue. But I'm not aware of any other common description for them in English, and they do predate Elgar's composition by quite some time, as well as being, I suspect, somewhat better known.

  36. Mark Dowson said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 10:40 pm

    I write "types of wine", or in a technical context "types of variable" while my grammatically picky US colleagues (thank goodness I have a few) tend to insist on "types of wines" and "types of variables". Is this, perhaps, a UK/US distinction?

  37. David Morris said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 11:44 pm

    @AntC: *I* know that. *They* don't know that (yet).

  38. Eric P Smith said,

    November 13, 2013 @ 11:24 am

    @Mark Dowson
    I find "types of wine" much more natural than "types of wines". And I hate "those sorts of things": I would always say "things of that sort".

  39. Greg Malivuk said,

    November 13, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

    My EFL issue with count vs. mass nouns is that nearly every book I've used thinks food is the best topic to use to introduce the distinction.

    You know, that topic where you can have lots of fruit but also fruits and vegetables, where you can have a fish or some fish or a few fish or a bit of fish, where you can order some coffee or a coffee, where you roast a turkey to eat some turkey, and so on. The difficult thing is finding the few words that *don't* change type depending on the context. Rice and broccoli generally resist countification, while the only ones that resist massification are the names of animals that have different words for their meat, like pigs and cows.

  40. Ken Brown said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

    I think you can shoot wild "pig". But not "cow" – "cattle" gets in the way. Or "kine" if you are in an Early Modern mood.

  41. Victoria Simmons said,

    November 15, 2013 @ 2:45 am

    @Gordon Campbell
    @David Morris

    In my training as a folklorist, I found that folklorists and ethnomusicologists often speak of "musics," and have done so for decades. They actually mean something by it: "the music of the American South" may suggest an undifferentiated mass, while "musics of the American South" is meant to suggest a number of very different traditions that connect to one another at occasional points. It makes sense to me, but there is a kind of postmodern PC-ness with some such usages, where the intent is to emphasize the diversity of whatever tradition is being discussed, as if use of the singular implies a reductive homogeneity in which of course the voice of the dominant group drowns out the traditionally disadvantaged groups. At least, that's the reasoning, in part. You can also argue that countries with complicated histories involving multiple languages and segregated populations possess 'literatures' rather than 'a literature.' My own dissertation chair was having none of it, though, and he resolutely corrected every place in my dissertation where I used "musics" or "literatures" or the like to the singular.

  42. Jerry (SK53) said,

    November 15, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

    @myl, @J.W. Brewer:

    Michael Palin does provide an explanation of why Monty Python chose "a shrubbery" in the commentary on the DVD edition of the Holy Grail. (available on Youtube).

    @Jussi Piitulainen: I share your peeve about the use of ontology in computer science. In the commercial IT world the same thing is usually called 'data modelling', a much saner term.

    @xmun: your comment bought to mind the relatively new neologism "bikeshedding" derived from one of the essays in C. Northcote Parkinsons's Parkinsons' Law. Google's engram suggests that bike shed was a pretty new word itself when used by Parkinson.

  43. Moby Grape said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

    Those who observe carefully can see the actual shrubbery that was arranged, designed, and sold (not too expensively) at 3:42 in the YouTube clip ( It is surrounded by a white picket fence to assist identification ;=)

  44. Mary Bull said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

    Jeff DeMarco said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

    "In a 'theme and variations' there are separate and distinct musical treatments of the theme, each one is a separate 'variation.' To me, this requires an 's' to distinguish it from the general concept of thematic variation."

    That's what I think it requires, too, Jeff. As in Mozart's popularly called "Variations on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" — Twelve Variations on "Ah vous dirai-je, Maman", K. 265/300e.

  45. Mary Bull said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

    Here's a link to a rendition by a then 11-year-old pianist, which he uploaded to his Youtube account:

  46. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 17, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

    Ken Brown: I think when you go shooting wild pig, this is an uninflected plural rather than a mass-noun. Can you not say 'I shot three pig'? This is quite common with animals seen as objects of pursuit. (Though of course uninflected plurals are sometimes hard to tell apart form mass-nouns, and even the speakers may not always know.)

  47. Chandra said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

    That whole Monty Python segment makes so much more sense to me now! (Which is an odd thing to say about Monty Python, but I digress…) Especially these parts:

    "I arrange, design, and sell shrubberies."

    "It is a good shrubbery. I like the laurels particularly."

    "Then, when you have found the shrubbery, you must place it here beside this shrubbery, only slightly higher so you get a two-level effect with a little path running down the middle."

  48. mobile games sites said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 1:44 am

    This site was… how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I've found something which helped me.
    Thank you!

RSS feed for comments on this post